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Reviews |  Journalism is broken and only I can fix it!

“Grid is for people like you and me who follow the news but want something more. Many of us are inundated with relentless crisis updates. The inundation prioritizes what’s new, not necessarily to what’s important,” Grid News editor Laura McGann wrote this week when the website went live. hardly a breakthrough idea. Similarly, Grid’s “360” approach to coverage – taking an interdisciplinary sweep on a topic with multiple concurrent stories – hardly reinvents the wheel. do all the time.

Maybe the idea will catch fire, but it reminds me of Vox’s original concept of breaking stories down into stackable, up-to-date “Vox cards” to serve as guides to ongoing news. “Our mission has never been more vital than it is right now: to empower through understanding,” said Vox’s founding credo as if no other publication was intended to empower its readers at an advantage with new copy. But two years later, Vox cards were dead.

Puck News’ mission statement from last September played the obvious card in its September opener to readers. Editor-in-chief Jon Kelly wrote, “We wanted to create a brand centered on the inner conversation – the story behind the story, the details and the plot that only the true insiders knew.” Isn’t the inside story the goal of every ambitious writer and editor? If that’s a given, why should an editor boo and yell that that’s your destination?

If it is a crime to proclaim the obvious, then Justin Smith and Ben Smith – whose as-yet-unnamed global news organization has just entered startup mode – should be convicted and jailed immediately. Defector writer Albert Burneko has rightly ridiculed Smith and Smith for their plans to target their new operation at the 200 million college-educated English speakers on the planet who they believe are underserved by today’s press. You could argue that the 200 million is underserved, Burneko notes, but if you ignore the output of the New York Times, the Washington post, the the Wall Street newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, New York magazine, Minstrels, TIME, the National exam, the New Republic, Insider, Intercept, ProPublica, Columbia Journalism Review, vanity lounge, Mother Jones, the Federalist, the Nation, Jacobin, the Washington Examiner, the hill, Raison, Bloomberg and the Daily Beast.

While no one should underestimate Smith and Smith and everyone should applaud their promise to create something new, neither has communicated what form it will take other than it will be awesome. In an internal memo that Axios’ Sara Fischer smoked, Justin Smith says “existing news institutions” have been “ill-equipped to change direction.” Indulge in the doom and gloom that many new media revel in – remember when when founding Axios, Jim VandeHei said, “Media is broken – and too often a rip-off”? – Smith wrote that the information sector was in shambles. “Faced with the technological and societal upheavals of the past two decades, traditional publishing institutions have become almost paralyzed – operationally, politically, culturally,” he said. [emphasis added in both quotations].

Broken? Paralyzed? Yes, most daily newspapers have been in decline for decades and few realize the 30% margins they had before the competitive force of the internet burned them. But it is a wild exaggeration to claim that traditional institutions are hampered. Did not he New York Times to save itself from catastrophe thanks to record subscription revenues? Did the Time not pay $500 million for Athletic? Didn’t the Ringer cost around $200 million? Didn’t Axel Springer buy the parts of Insider he didn’t already own for $343 million in 2015 and POLITICO the other day for $1 billion? Sale prices alone don’t prove that journalism isn’t as broken as doomsayers claim, but they do show a kind of journalistic vitality. Readers, many of whom are willing to pay for what they consume, want what these outlets carry, whether sprawling investigative articles or pithy morning newscasts.

So, if the current journalistic scene is such a fiasco, why have so many challengers rushed to compete with the incumbents? Obviously, because new entrants think they can make money and build lasting institutions – or sell them for a profit. The journalistic landscape has always been fluid, with old behemoths giving way to new wannabes. It stands to reason that newbies, many of whom are fast becoming the new media establishment, would embrace the PR logic that old is bad and new is great because, of course, they’re new. It also stands to reason that they will adopt many of the wrinkles they criticized in their founding statements as they succeed. POLITICO’s founding statement from 2007 promised, “We generally will not pursue the story du jour,” a statement that was quickly rendered ineffective.

Not all startups boast of remaking the journalistic world. A year ago, the Punchbowl News team under-promised and exceeded expectations with this modest mission statement: “We will relentlessly focus on the people in Washington who make the decisions, as well as the news and events that will move political markets.” When launching Airmail in 2019, Graydon Carter simply promised more of what he thinks people love. “Our goal is to bring you a light-hearted, entertaining, yet serious weekend edition, delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning at 6 a.m. PT,” Carter wrote. “Our goal is to surprise you. Who were his future readers? “They will be a sophisticated person. They’re not backpackers, and they’re not in Las Vegas, drinking champagne and sitting in their heart-shaped tubs,” he told the New York Times.

What possesses new founders to inhabit the grand? The profits at New York Times are not so big that anyone would invest the kind of money needed to move it. When pitching investors, founders feel compelled to exaggerate the novelty of their potential startups, making up the most over-the-top headlines for their baby’s birth announcements. Too often, it seems, the founder is still drunk on his own pitch when presenting his publication to his readers.


The original motto of the Adolph Ochs era New York Times was “It won’t stain the breakfast cloth.” Later he changed it to “All news that can be printed”. Send your mission statement to [email protected]. My email alerts are broken, my Twitter is paralyzed, but my RSS feed is entirely ambulatory.

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